Two young women connected to the stabbing death of Michael Shull asked for forgiveness in court Thursday.
His parents had none to give.
And as the terms of three prison sentences were read aloud in a Mecklenburg County courtroom, Cliff and Josee Shull of Conover visibly struggled to accept what they believe is insufficient punishment of those responsible for their son’s death.
Michael Shull, who had recently graduated from the N.C. School for the Deaf, died shortly before Christmas 2012, the victim of a plot by people he knew.
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The 21-year-old was fatally stabbed by a member of his girlfriend’s extended family.
The attack took place during a robbery planned in part by his girlfriend’s half sister.
On Thursday, all three involved in the robbery/slaying were sent to prison.
• Davonta Turner, 20, who stabbed Shull during the robbery attempt, will serve between 28 and 37 years.
• Turner’s half sister, Aveance Bryant, 20, received 4 1/2 to seven years. She is also a half sister to Shanika Harris, Michael Shull’s girlfriend at the time of his death.
• Ashley Owens, 20, Turner’s girlfriend of four weeks when the killing occurred, got five to seven years.
All of them were teenagers when they were arrested in December 2012.
To Cliff Shull, the prison terms handed out Thursday were not nearly enough. He wanted the death penalty. He said prosecutors told him he would never get one from a jury.
Inside the courtroom, the father twice stood before Superior Court Judge Richard Boner and asked him to consider the man his son was about to become and the pain his death had caused before agreeing to sentences offered in exchange for guilty pleas.
He said if given a future chance of freedom, the three defendants would one day be standing before another judge.
When Bryant and Owens stood and turned toward the victim’s family to express regrets – Bryant’s voice trembled during her comments – Shull and his wife, Josee, looked away.
Outside the courthouse, the former Marine said his son’s death deserved justice.
“This was completely planned, and my son was ambushed and murdered for a couple of hundred bucks, if that,” Shull said.
He said the defendants thought Michael was rich. In fact, he said, his son had landed his first job and was struggling to create an independent life despite his disability.
“Everybody has choices. Michael’s choices were taken away,” he said. “I know it’s not the Christian thing, but I can’t find forgiveness in my heart.”
“Not now,” Josee Shull added. “Not yet.”
In the courtroom, as Turner stood before him, Boner spoke of sentencing hearings yet to come.
“Someday, and I believe this, you’ll stand before someone far greater than all of us and account for what you’ve done,” the judge said. “I hope you’re ready.”
Turner did not respond.
2 different families
Authorities have cleared Shanika Harris of any involvement in the crime.
She and Michael Shull met while the two were students at the N.C. School for the Deaf in Morganton. She is black. He was white. She is from Charlotte; he was from Conover.
The young couple had been dating on and off for two years, his parents say, and Shull had long ago made it a habit to help Harris’ family in any way he could – from fixing a truck, to taking them food to buying them items they needed that he couldn’t afford but paid for anyway.
On Dec. 22, 2012, a Friday, Shull got off work at a tire place in Morganton and drove down to Charlotte. His plan was to visit Harris and her family. He had just been paid.
Members of that family were lying in wait.
According to Assistant District Attorney Anna Greene, at one point in the evening, Aveance Bryant used sign language to persuade Harris to get out of Shull’s truck so Turner could ride with him instead.
Minutes into the drive, Turner handed Shull a note, telling him he was being robbed. Shull thought it was a joke. Turner then attacked the deaf man. When Shull fought back, Turner pulled a knife.
Police found the empty truck stopped in the middle of a road. As they were about to tow it off, a nearby resident appeared. There was the body of a man in her front yard.
Michael Shull still wore his work clothes. His pay stub was in his back pocket. He had been fatally stabbed in the chest.
The next day, the defendants used Shull’s bank card at a Charlotte mall to buy Christmas presents for Owens’ two small children.
Bryant’s attorney, Terry Sherrill, said his client and Owens “didn’t have any idea that Mr. Turner was going to kill Mr. Shull” and had agreed to testify against Turner, if his case had gone to trial.
He said he was confident that Bryant, in time, would make something of her life.
“No one can undo what has happened,” he told the judge.
When Bryant spoke in court, her voice shook. “I want to apologize,” she said, as she half turned toward the Shulls. “I know you’re having a hard time forgiving me.”
Owens also turned to face a row filled by the Shulls, their family and friends.
“It took me a long time to forgive myself,” she said softly. “I’m sorry, and I really mean it from the bottom of my heart.”
Cliff Shull stared at the floor. Later, he and his wife said they had heard those pleas and tears in court before – in March, when Bryant had pleaded guilty and been freed on bond. The next day, they say, she flooded her Facebook page with gleeful “I’m-out-of-jail photographs.”
“That doesn’t show remorse,” Josee Shull said.
During sentencing, the defendants’ family members sat on the other side of the courtroom from the Shulls. After sentencing, they declined to talk with reporters.
Although the parents are aware Harris was cleared of any involvement, they still wonder how she didn’t know what had been planned.
They say Harris tried to contact them once, but it was all too soon and there was still too much pain.
“I know they’ll be behind bars, but it’s not nearly enough time,” Cliff Shull said before family and friends began their hourlong drive back to Catawba County.
“But at least there’s some kind of closure. We can come to grips with what’s happened. We have to move on.”